Disclaimer: Everything belongs to Masashi Kishimoto.


Chapter 9

Six weeks after Shikamaru and I had set out to Waterfall, we returned to our camp and soldiers, whether victorious or in defeat was hard to tell. The Fall rain was hammering us into the ground, the hoods of our cloaks bending under the downpour that was beating Grass into submission.

Shinobi stood at attention when we plodded past them through the mud, their spines rigid as a row of spears. They were waiting out the rain in the safety of their awnings, their money switching hands when they thought we had our backs to them.

Albeit in bad taste, a death pool wasn't unusual among the forces—a thing only illegal if you got caught doing it—so we let it go at first. At least until one shinobi didn't wait before we were out of sight and handed his bet to the kunoichi next to him. Shikamaru stopped in the middle of the way, his gaze swiveling along the row of shinobi and down to the Chūnin in question, whom he beckoned forward into the rain. The woman who had received the money, still standing under the awning and death-gripping her won ryo, turned chalky at the sudden scrutiny so close to her. Belatedly, as Shikamaru's stare slid from her neighbor to herself, she too stepped into the rain, where the deluge stuck her hair to her brow and drenched her clothes within seconds.

A twitch of Shikamaru's nose was all it would take to send them running. In their averted eyes, their anxious posture, was the knowledge that something had changed in him. They had no way to tell what kind of change, but its presence, its sheer existence, made itself felt nevertheless.

I knew the change, though, could read what flashed in Shikamaru's glare: a time in Waterfall we'd rather forget, and yet memories of which cropped up like weeds on a walkway when you least expected them. Putting a hand on his shoulder I addressed the Chūnin by name and said to them, "You ought to pay better attention when paying out bets, eh? Another commander might write you up for that stuff. And anyway, misjudging a situation is a good way to get yourself killed on a mission, so be careful next time."

Shikamaru and I walked on. And while the Chūnin relaxed, losing tension like two overwrought strings going slack, I fought down the memory of Subaru's torn up body and the countless faces haunting me day in, day out.

"You were in Waterfall," I said quietly as we crossed into Orochimaru's former hideout, navigating through the narrow halls underground. Lit sconces led the way, made our shadows big and monstrous, and had them flickering behind us as if to burst out of our backs if only we eased up and let them.

"I'm there every day," he said.

So was I. Shikamaru chased the memories away when they began to crowd my mind. Likewise, I broke him out of his spells the moment Death threw shade on him.

In the command hall, Shikamaru's cousin and Haru were studying a pair of maps. Upon noticing us they stood to attention. "Sir," Haru said, bowing to me, before nodding to Shikamaru. "It's good to have you back. Where is—"

"Gone," I said. My expression made clear that this would be the end of this line of questioning. I wasn't surprised to see him here. We might have handed command over to someone else, but that likely hadn't stopped him from butting in his head out of sheer loyalty.

"How have things been for you?" Shikamaru asked his cousin.

"Not too bad. There were quite a few questions at first, though. You three leaving surprised a lot of people."

"Was there talk of treason?" I asked.

"Never," Haru cut in. "Everyone I talked to was convinced that you wouldn't just abandon us, sir. They knew you had a plan. They just didn't know what kind."

Shikamaru's cousin rolled his eyes, stepping over to the map hanging at the wall. "He's right . . . essentially. And people did notice results soon enough. After two weeks, Iwa patrols lessened in the fringe areas, making life vastly easier for our recon teams. The trend continued in the following weeks, spreading to key areas as well. We've had little news from Waterfall, but whatever you were doing there to draw Iwa away worked wonders. Their forces have withdrawn to a few key points, leaving the outer edges of Grass to us."

"So they're turtling now," I said, counting the pins on the map which symbolized Iwa's strongholds. "Fewer areas to defend while increasing the amount of shinobi they have at any given place. It's a good strategy as long as they're dealing with the trouble in Waterfall."

"And at the middle of it all stands Kumi Castle . . ." Shikamaru said, his face dark and foreboding, no doubt because he remembered the losses of that day.

"We should mount an attack on that place as soon as we can," Haru said. "A hard and fast strike will surely secure us a victory now that you're here again and Iwa is being stretched thin. We'll show them, sir. For sure."

It shouldn't have happened, but Haru's fervor still caught me off-guard. He had a wife and two kids, his daughter already attending the Academy. Was he that eager to throw himself into battle?

"It might not be the best way, but we do have the option, sir," Shikamaru's cousin said. "It would be a hard battle, but not an impossible one with our current numbers."

"We've battered our head bloody against those walls before," I told them. "We're not running into another situation like that. At least not like things stand right now."

"Sir?" Both Haru and Shikamaru's cousin wore their surprise on their faces.

"Double our teams alongside the Grass-Waterfall border," I said to Shikamaru. "I want to know about everything that moves in and out in the coming weeks."

"You think she'll come?" Shikamaru asked.

"Four weeks. If she's not here by then, we'll take the place by ourselves. Until then, we're going to crack the remaining positions Iwa still occupies and drive them into the castle. I want to get all of them in one swipe."

"I'll get the patrol schedules ready, then," Shikamaru said, gesturing for his cousin and Haru to follow him.

Left alone in the command hall, I allowed myself a sigh, trying to get rid of all the doubt and nerves. In Waterfall I had started to play a game I had no experience in, and I'd played it as hard and as bloody as I could.

Would Fū come? In her shoes, I'd do whatever it took to wreck this place. But I wasn't Fū, and I hadn't inadvertently started a war that brought my country to its knees. Was the guilt over her past strong enough to accept my actions if it meant booting Iwa out of Waterfall for good? I had dealt her a nasty hand with almost no way forward. Would she pick it up and play with it, or burn the cards and throw cinders and ashes in my face?

There was no answer to any of these questions, so I stopped asking them and left the hall, firming my step and straightening my shoulders instead. The plan was made. In the next four weeks I'd move every piece into place to advance my and, by proxy, Konoha's agenda. Fū's aid would be welcome, but I'd be damned before I let myself become dependent on her goodwill.

Entering my tent I noticed that everything inside had been left as it was before I set out to Waterfall. My attempts at writing Hinata still littered the floor and the bed, while letters of condolences piled up on the table. I brushed my finger across the wooden box. Two orange hand prints waited inside for me. I didn't dare touch that letter as I was right now, though. The thought of it had to be enough.

I pulled up a sheet of paper and dipped a brush in ink. I had avoided this long enough now.

I'm sorry if you haven't heard anything of me, Hinata. I've started this letter a hundred times and never got very far. There was always something else. The war and . . . You know what, that's a lie, and you probably know it. I couldn't find the words and made excuses, that is all. I still don't know what to write, but I decided that you're getting this letter if it kills me. It'll be hard to read, and probably a mess. But you're you, so here's to hoping that you'll get me anyway.

So, where to start? I hate this rain. I don't like the food, and . . .

The brush was trembling in my hand. I was trying to evade the issue again. Like always. But that was no good. I had found a start, now I had to continue with resolve. I forced the brush back onto the paper and crossed out the last line, beginning a new paragraph. There would be no more meaningless chatter.

. . . I don't think I like myself much right now, Hinata. I'm not sure what's happening to me, and I'm . . .—Again that trembling; again I had to still my hand, and then brute force brush onto paper—I am afraid. There. I wrote it. I'm afraid. I'm afraid. I'm afraid. I don't know if I'll be the same when I get back to you. I don't even know if you'll like this new me. If it can be liked at all. I don't. It is a version of me born in a dark place, and I fear that I've got to keep it now because I need it to make sure we survive. And even afterwards I don't think I can just throw it away. Now that I have it, it'll stick to me like rust on a cheap knife, no matter what I do.

It's all a mess, Hinata. I've done things I'd never thought I'd do. I've seen so many people die, have failed to save so many, and they still salute me like it's nothing. As if the world is still the same just because the sun keeps rising and the damn larks still sing in this bloody country. Subaru is dead, Hinata. I pulled Shikamaru into this horror, too. What kind of friend does that? I don't understand anything anymore.

Why are they still saluting?

I'm sorry. I probably shouldn't have written all that stuff. I don't want to worry you, but I think I bungled that up too now. I really want to hold Chie and make her whoosh through the air like a kite. And I want to lie in bed with you on a sunny morning and talk about stuff, and then tickle and kiss you.

I miss you two.

When I was done, I felt drained and had lost all sense of time. At some moments I'd even forgotten that I was writing. The words just came and wouldn't stop, and I'd been shaking like a leaf all the while.

And I learned again what I had suspected all along, that battles outside of my heart and mind were much easier to fight than those inside. That even in the dizzying cacophony of war there was a startling clarity which my inner turmoil lacked. For all the misery I sometimes felt when leading these men and women into battle, it was never the act itself that I found difficult but the aftermath instead. When, exhausted by blood and steel, my barriers were broken, leaving me to face my emotions head on, that was when the true battle began, and when I had to set myself straight. And that was where I faltered more often than not.

Not this time, though. This time I had made it to the end. The result was a paper with crossed out lines, specks of errant ink, and a lot of thoughts that had been bothering me. I had no orange, but I smeared my hand with black ink instead and put my handprint on the paper just as they had done, before rolling it into a scroll and tying it with twine.

Now, having written down my fear, preserving this part of my humanity, I had to empty my heart again and destroy fear altogether, because a commander, a leader, could not allow himself such an emotion. A hard lesson to learn. But one that waterfall taught me with brutal precision.

The next morning, in the early hours of yet another chilly day, a squad of twenty-one shinobi and kunoichi stood on the wet grass outside the encampment. The palisade behind us was glistening from the remnant rain. Errant raindrops beaded down the leaves, falling to the forest floor in a weak drizzle. When I joined the troops, Shikamaru, the odd man out, gave me a last overview. "They're all here. Ten water and two lightning affinities, two medic-nin, four Taijutsu and two Genjutsu specialists—twenty all in all."

I let slip a non-committal grunt, my eyes wandering over the group as my mind supplied their names.

"Lighting's hard to come by," Shikamaru went on, nodding at a young pair of Chūnin, a boy and a girl of seventeen, "so these two make up all of our lightning users. They're . . . not the most combat-proficient yet. I got them to show me their techniques though. Strength-wise they should do. It's just a matter of experience."

"Or lack thereof," I said, calling up what I knew about them from a memory at the coffee tent. Grass was their first warzone. Before becoming Chūnin and being sent here in a hurry they had been doing supply runs between Konoha and Tea Country—not the most difficult route, even during a war like this.

"Are you sure you don't want me to come with you?"

A half-smile pulled at my lips. Sometimes Shikamaru was utterly predictable. "Not this time," I said. "I need you here to coordinate our efforts and filter the information we're getting from Waterfall. You know what we're looking for. If she makes a move, send me the fastest man you have and I'll be there."

"Guess I'll have to accept that," Shikamaru said with a shrug. Having twenty people accompany me seemed to ease his worry a lot, and besides, our stay in Waterfall had cured him of the need to cluck around me like a mother hen. As if that episode, that moment of our lives both of us wished to eradicate so completely, had forged a level of trust between us that even after all these years of serving together felt new and foreign. "I'll keep the fort then. Good luck."

"You too," I returned, gripping his forearm. Then he was gone, back inside the palisade, back to the maps and all the calculations that crowded his head and would drive lesser man mad within hours.

A last look at the gate, then I turned to address the troops: "Tonight we will crush Iwa's fortification near the city of Imae. Shikamaru has given you the detailed briefing already. Are there any questions left?"

Silence answered.

"Then we're moving out. Steady pace, keep about a mile behind me."

I leapt into the trees, rushing ahead. We would reach Imae with enough time left to scout out the area and devise a more detailed plan for our attack that night. While my shinobi held to their regular speed, I called up clones as I went, spreading them out in every direction.

A few hours into the journey, a clone a mile ahead popped itself when he spied a four-man scout team patrolling the area around Imae. I set off, slamming into the group like lightning into a tree. I gripped the first shinobi with both hands around his throat and pushed my thumbs deep into his trachea, which was, half a second later, punctured by two bloody holes as wind spiraled away from my thumbs. I let go of the corpse, ducked under a swing, and swept at the second man's legs, cutting off both below the knee as wind kept shearing through flesh and bone. The two other Iwa-nin soon followed their brethren, their throats slit by two clones who had come up behind them unnoticed. One of those I sent to inform the troops that they had to hide the remnants of a patrol.

By the time we reached the outskirts of Imae, two more patrols had found their end at my hands. Just like Shikamaru's cousin had said, the frequency of patrols had heightened as a result of Rōshi's decision to focus his troops on fewer areas. None of the three patrols had seen me coming, or had been given any chance to send word to the rest of Iwa's troops, but by now their absence would have been noticed. I'd be surprised if they weren't already considering an attack force coming for them.

The weak noon sun had given way to a late-afternoon sky replete with clouds and heavy winds as we came onto Iwa's fortification at last. "They've found themselves a cushy spot," I said from the vantage point of a tree. The encampment lay on an island squeezed into the middle of the Shibō River, one of the larger bodies of water in Grass. Not unlike our camp, theirs was ringed by a makeshift palisade.

"It won't be long until dark, sir," said Miko, the Chūnin with the red-sleeved shirt whom, an eternity ago that was in truth not even half a year, I had left in charge of cleaning up Orochimaru's lab and transforming it into a med bay. An alert gaze, an unflinching hand hovering close to her weapon pouch, an otherwise blank face: her early anxiety had been sloughed off by time and experience, as it happened to everyone eventually—at least to those who survived. Soon she'd be a candidate for Jōnin. I made a mental note to talk it over with Shikamaru. If she did well today and in the battles to come, a field promotion wasn't out of the question.

"Go and rest up with the others," I told her. "We attack in two hours, the moment darkness sets in."

As light fizzled out of the day, I went over the plan with my troops once more. "They still outnumber us two to one, so if they learn what's up we have to run before we get to accomplish anything. I for one didn't come all the way here to run away with my tail between my legs, though. I'm sure the same can be said for all of you . . . which means that we have to play this one smart and carefully."

"Yes, sir!"

I stopped in front of the two lightning specialists. I grinned at them, summoning some of that cheer they were lacking and desperately wanted right now. "This will be your first big mission. Are you excited?"

The hesitant reply and their faces told me they were anything but. I put my hands on their shoulders and leaned in closer. "Don't worry too much. It's alright to be nervous the first time round—eventually it'll go away. All you've got to do is not getting twitchy. Remember your roles. Wait on my order, then act. That's all. You'll see—tomorrow we'll be back at camp, celebrating victory."

"Yes, sir!" This time their reply was sharp. I nodded at them in satisfaction.

"It's time. Let's go!"

Even though I had told them the nerves vanished after a while, I had to admit to a few butterflies in my stomach as well. We were heavily outnumbered, and victory was entirely dependent on whether we managed to confuse Iwa into entering the cocky state of mind that was their damn natural habitat. I had no doubt that by now the men and women behind that palisade knew we were coming.

A minute later, I was given the signal that everyone was in place. The water-users had taken up position with me on the riverbank opposite of the encampment. Farther behind were our two medic-nin, protected by two close-combat specialists. Hidden by Genjutsu and shrubbery on either flank was each a group of three: a lightning user, a Taijutsu- and a Genjutsu-specialist.

A deep breath filled my lungs, then I said, "Now!" and ten shinobi linked their fingers in a dance of deadly symbols; and in an echo of that power, half a second later ten crocodile heads shaped from the water peeked out of the shallow parts of the river, opening their maws in unison: ten maws, ten bullets, and ten again, and ten once more, all flying, whistling, in high arcs across the river, about to vanish into the darkness of the night if not for the moon's distorted shimmer as they passed over the palisade. I had fought quite a few battles in my time, but there still was something awe-inspiring in the sight of a Ninjutsu platoon hurling their chakra at the enemy on your word alone.

The impact, and the resulting splash of water, came early. I didn't know what exactly Iwa had done to fend off the attack, but my money was on stone walls erupting from the earth, shielding them. An easy solution to the problem. For sure what I would've done in their stead, since earth beat water handily. For there to be an equilibrium in power, you'd need an S-ranked water technique to crack a B-ranked defensive formation made of Earth. That's just the way affinities worked, and these crocodile maws, impressive as they were, lining up like artillery, were nowhere near being S-ranked.

There was a moment of eerie silence in which I readied myself, my boots digging deep into the earth. "Don't stop shooting," I said. "Make them angry. No matter what happens, I'll make sure you're safe."

Then I blasted off, a clone pulling back one of my water specialists as I encased my body in wind and flung myself against the boulder that had popped out of the darkness as it was almost right in front of the formation. The moment of impact took my breath away, but the wind reduced most of the damage and the boulder crumbled around me. More came hurtling from the sky, and I whizzed from shinobi to shinobi, pulling them back, blasting a boulder, reverting course, saving the next one, my teeth chattering from the speed as I drove myself to go faster and faster, trying to catch every boulder before it could harm one of mine. Without clones it would've never worked, but hidden by darkness, half of them pulled my men to safety when I didn't manage it in time. The other half changed their voices as best they could, screaming for help, god, the nation, and everything in between to arrive and rescue them.

The barrage of boulders seemed endless. And yet, my men kept lobbing water at the camp until I gave them the sign to ease off, to slowly, one by one, stop their techniques. I crushed another rock, then came to an abrupt halt, my body covered in sweat, my breath heavy, my knuckles torn and bloody. A deep breath filled my lungs. In a hoarse roar I called the retreat—once, twice, three times, so that even a deaf Iwa-nin could've heard.

Edging away from the water, I wondered if they'd take the bait. If you knew what was coming, it seemed so nerve-wrackingly obvious. But what image had Iwa gotten of me and Konoha so far? We had smashed our noses bloody at the walls of Kumi Castle. Rōshi had fought me to a standstill. The clans had turned against us. And only some undetermined problem in Waterfall was the reason why Iwa had to give up some of their supremacy in Grass, having to beat a tactical retreat to the core regions of the country. I must look like an idiot to them, and only an idiot would order an attack on a fortification like this in a desperate ploy to gain back control.

I would've known if Rōshi was behind those walls, and the thought that he wasn't gave me confidence.

Come now, I found myself egging on the enemy commander, come and get your shot at glory. I'm right here. You've broken us. We've called for a retreat. Come and get us already, whoever you are.

Nothing happened. Had they intuited it after all? Had attacking them with water been too obvious of a lure?

Then a war cry rose from behind the palisade, a cheer followed, and soon I made out a swell of Iwa-nin vaulting over the wall, onto the beach. Shields made of earth hovered in front and above of them, coming closer as they began their advance to hunt down the retreating enemy.

My heart grew lighter at the sight of so many running across the river, secure in their imminent victory. Even if we didn't get all of them and a few stayed behind that palisade, this was more than enough to even out the numbers. I rushed through a sequence of hand seals and blew life into a single, weak fireball—the signal. Like a lantern it arced above Iwa's heads, illuminating their victory-drunk faces before sinking into the water among sizzling and steam.

Lightning came racing across the river from two sides, arcs zapping up and down, rushing forth to meet Iwa's troops in a storm of high voltage and burnt limbs. Screams rose. The odor of singed flesh crowded the air. A few had jumped before the lightning could get to them, but where would they jump to? The moment they lost momentum in the air and had to come down, their feet would touch water. When several used Ninjutsu to navigate in the air, pushing themselves in different directions, my Genjutsu specialists on the flanks did their work. Confused, only two of the airborne Iwa-nin made it back over the palisade.

The others were easy pickings in their panic and a subtle nudge of the mind had them choose the wrong riverbank. Covered in sweat, their body shot with adrenalin, they landed crouching on the soft grass of the bank, barely having survived being electrocuted. When they looked up, relief changed to fear; for what they saw was me, my knife, and then nothing as they joined those of their fellow shinobi who had crawled out of the water and likewise found their end.

They had thought themselves too safe, too strong: invulnerable as the mountains they hailed from. The river was a ready source for their few water specialists should Konoha come with fire—which we tended to do—and their natural affinity to earth would secure them against any attempt to make the river their enemy.

Overconfidence, however, beat every affinity; and it was always lurking just beneath the surface, ready to come up and whisper in your ear, no matter who you were. Because fundamentally, shinobi liked power. They enjoyed it, and whoever said differently was lying. With power came temptation, though: a voice always present in the back of your mind, telling you to show off, to dominate, to shoulder the world . . . the shapes power took were endless, but, if they served your purpose, ready at hand.

From inconsequential to monumental, I had suffered all of them. I was sure everyone on my side, and everyone across that river, had done the same. Stoking the confidence of a shinobi, feeding the flames inside him, wasn't difficult. Not at all. Keeping yourself safe from it was the hard part, the one you struggled with your whole life.

Because even as I thought those things, I could feel it well up in my chest again: the knowledge that today would be a victory, and that every day from now on would be the same . . . Why? Because I had made it so, and would make it so once more. A wish so easy to give into, a passion too easy to drown in. This battle, in all its various forms, would play itself out again and again. Today. Tomorrow. Until I stopped being a shinobi, and even then, who knew what would happen?

But right now . . . right now I was alert, and I crushed pride under my heel, because this night was far from over.

I had left with a group of twenty, and I returned with a group of twenty. The latter part had by no means been assured, despite the successful ambush at the banks of the Shibō River. Behind that palisade had waited another crowd of Iwa-nin, hardy and blood-thirsty after having just listened to the screams of their brethren, and like enraged bears they had clawed at us, nothing but a red desire for vengeance in their eyes. I would've fought the same were the roles reversed, but I had no pity left. Every swipe of their claw was answered in kind, and by the end of it they lay dead while the men and women under my command, though injured, lived long enough for Miko and the other medic-nin to treat them.

Now, back at camp and all the adrenalin of the fight gone from my body, the forty-eight hours of rest I gave myself before setting out with the next force made time pass in a crawl. In the morning I would meet with Shikamaru to work through the reports that had stacked up during my absence, while also using the chance to draw up plans for the inevitable storm on Kumi Castle.

In the afternoons, I held training sessions, which turned out to be more popular than expected. Some Jōnin preferred to hone their styles in private, but a few of them and many Chūnin came in their spare time. I made the best of it. Every shinobi who could be taught a trick or two was one more finger raised to Death.

In the meanwhile, I also learned a soundproofing Genjutsu from one of our experts. A clone would keep it up while I slept. My people should not have to hear me scream and flail at night, which sadly was still a regular occurrence after Waterfall. I had avoided it on the mission by not sleeping and being done within a day and a half. But no one could guarantee that this would work again.

During my regular pause at the coffee tent, I kept my ear to the ground, listening to the pulse within the camp. Everyone and their dog had an opinion on what had happened in Waterfall. Some came closer to the truth than others. For the most part, though, they understood the results, but not what had caused them.

I would keep it that way. Waterfall would be a dark chapter in Konoha's history that only a few ever got to read. How many of those chapters already made up the village was hard to tell. How many had my father written? How many the old man, and every other Hokage? Not knowing might be safer for my sanity.

The same night, as I was doing the rounds, I heard bits and pieces from all over the encampment. As was tradition, the people thirsted for more, and newer, things. Soon the tale of our ambush at the Shibō River was starting to make an appearance, sending the speculations about Waterfall away with a pat on the back.

"Only scratches?" they asked.

"Only scratches," the Chūnin girl specializing in lightning returned with newfound confidence.

"Hell of a first gig!"

". . . should've seen them running . . ."

"And then the lightning . . ."

". . . would've liked to be there myself . . ."

"Must've been a spectacle!"

"You don't know the half of it . . ."

". . . caught every damn boulder on our way!"

"And what about . . . ?"

". . . finished them off, no sweat."

And on it went. The story certainly lifted their spirits. Later I learned from Shikamaru that a crate of sake had been 'liberated' from the stores, and subsequently been tackled and reduced to nothing that night. Songs rose, people got drunk and found comfort in each other's arms, and two brawls started and were ended just as quickly when either Shikamaru or I appeared in the periphery.

They'd had little enough to celebrate these past months in Grass that I didn't begrudge them the night of revelry.

I did however remember every voice I heard that night; and, being able to put name to face, in the early morning hours, with barely a bird awake, I called them all at once for a good training session to get rid of the hangover and discipline them for the stolen crate.

A camp had to have rules after all. I was sure Kakashi would have approved.

Time went by. Every third or fourth day I would set out with a force tailored to the surroundings of whatever location we were attacking. Iwa had grown more cautious, and our wounded more numerous, along the way. And yet it worked. Step by step, as their attention was divided between Grass and Waterfall, we drove Iwa farther inland, tightening the noose around Kumi Castle. The day we would storm that pile of rubble wasn't too far off now. With or without Fū.

During the third week, I extended my training from afternoon into night. Word spread. More and more shinobi were dropping in for longer and longer sessions. They had shown me respect when I took over command, but the admiration when they crossed paths with me now, and their eagerness, was strange beyond belief. I suspected that Haru was involved somehow. Out of respect for Subaru—though no one knew the details of his death—he had taken to wearing a white sash, reminiscent at least in part of the formal Hyūga garb. I tried to avoid looking at this constant reminder, but Haru often sought my company, and where he went, so did his zeal, which shone bright and eager in every eye.

"They love you," Shikamaru told me one noon in my tent.

I laughed. "Why would they? They haven't known me for a year. I damn well lost my first major battle. Respect me? Sure. I'm their commander, after all. But love? Not by a long shot."

He put down the report he'd been reading. "I'm amazed you can't see it. You're the epitome of a story to them."

"A horror story most likely."

"Troublesome . . . Think about it." He fished a cigarette out of his vest pocket. "You started as small as one could in Konoha, and made it all the way up to a large command. You've got a beautiful wife, who is also a Hyūga—and not just any Hyūga, but the eldest daughter of the clan head. In your first years of service, you have lost zero men on your teams. Do you know how rare that is? I was with you most of the time, and I still can't believe we made it that long without losing a single shinobi."

"Kumi Castle . . ."

"You lost that battle," he said, taking a long drag. "But even though we were ambushed and pincered, more than half of our men have survived that disaster because of your clones. They saw you leap all over the field, helping comrade after comrade, all while holding another Jinchūriki at bay. Then we went to Waterfall, and suddenly Iwa is pulling back. And now? Now you're even leading strike forces deep into their territory, herding Iwa like cattle toward the castle. You've almost completely negated their numeric advantage. Can't you see that? We turned a horrible situation around. Or rather, you turned it around. The stories you hear around the fires are nothing short of amazing." Shikamaru bared his teeth in a grin. "By the time those stories reach Konoha, they'll have made you into a god."

His words kept bouncing around in my head long after he was gone, but I couldn't bring myself to believe him fully. Even so . . . a god? But at what cost? I excused myself from my duty that day and sought out a quiet place, taking Kurotsuchi's diary with me. I had stopped reading after Kumi Castle, the memory of Rōshi too fresh, too painful, to read about him in a good light.

As I leafed through the pages, I noticed that finishing up the diary wouldn't take too much boldness after all. Kurotsuchi had only a few entries left, the majority of pages at the end were blank, the paper wrinkled at times where wet spots had dried. I sunk into her world, into strange missions, stranger training, and an easy companionship with my worst enemy in Grass, until I came to the last entry.

It's been a long time since I last wrote, but I didn't have the time. The war took all of us by surprise, but there we are. Rōshi is confusing me, too. I can't tell if he's excited for the battles ahead or afraid. He should be the former. I know he loves fighting, especially strong enemies. After too much sake, he once told me that fighting was the only thing he really cared for before I came along. That was sweet of him to say. I always knew there's a cuddly bear beneath all that volcanic ash and red fur he calls a beard. And it only took him what, eight years? to finally show it? But that's what mother always told me. Men can be so thick sometimes that it takes an event of cataclysmic force to make them say anything about what's going on inside them. It's ridiculous, of course, but there we are.

I don't have much more time. I'll have to leave the diary here for now, since I can't be identified during this mission. I'm giddy, though. Finally I can prove myself to grandfather and Rōshi. I've waited for my chance, and this'll be it, I can feel it! There have been rumors that Konoha's Copycat is in the area, but I don't put too much stock in them. For a bunch of tree huggers, Konoha is surprisingly good about their counter intelligence, and Hatake Kakashi is the boogeyman they conjure up from time to time. I've heard enough stories. He can't be everywhere at once, and if right now he's at the border to Lightning, well, it stands to reason he won't be here. It's all just scaremongering anyway. And besides, if I fought and beat him, I'd have one hell of a story to tell Rōshi. He'd be proud, for sure.

When the ink ended, I sat numb with the open diary in my hand. I had never heard of the Tsuchikage's granddaughter before I got this book, and now I knew why. I had no concrete proof, of course, except the lack of her existence. But my gut told me well enough what had happened. Kakashi had snuffed Kurotsuchi out before she'd ever gotten the chance to prove her mettle to anyone.

Did Rōshi know who I was? Had he made the connection between me and Kakashi?

In a strange way, on that secluded branch with the Fall winds cutting through the foliage, I found myself mourning that girl from Iwa, whose view of the world had reminded me of myself quite often, and whose voice had afforded me respite now and then.

I closed the diary, trailing a finger over its battered spine and roughed-up leather cover. It could be used as a weapon. I knew enough of Rōshi's relationship with Kurotsuchi now to inflict real pain if I wanted to. The part of me forged in Waterfall urged me to it, but the knowledge felt so private, so intimate, that I found myself hesitating despite my vow to never again shy away from dirtying my hands if necessary.

Rising from the branch, I pushed the decision away and pocketed the diary in my vest. Reading had given me no peace of mind this time, had, if anything, created more problems, so I had to resort to another tried and true method.

Half an hour later I was overseeing a spar between Chūnin, focusing on making them better instead of myself.

"Don't let him get close to you," I shouted.

The kunoichi jerked away from her opponent, a stocky guy trying his hardest to stay in range so his fists could do some damage. To him I called out, "Don't stop. If she gets away you'll be nothing but target practice for her. Keep up!"

As they were nearing the end of their fight, a diminutive figure neared through the high grass.

Shima stopped in front of me, and I asked, "What is it?"

"Three of our patrols are coming back far earlier than expected." From under her coat sleeves came an agitated buzzing. "They will be here in half an hour."

"When were they scheduled to return?"

"Tomorrow evening."

My expression hardened. An early return could have several causes, but that three patrols came back at once put me in the mind of an escort mission. I was sure I knew whom they were bringing here.

I said, "I'll take care of it."

Shima saluted. The kunoichi had won in the meanwhile. A Chūnin trying to become a medic-nin practiced by patching up her and the big guy after the fight. The other trainees sat in a circle, talking over the various mistakes. "Keep going, everybody," I told them. "I have business to attend to."

Everyone, even the two wounded, scrambled to their feet and cried out "Sir!" in unison as I left them to themselves.

Shikamaru at my side, I waited at the entrance to the camp. My expectations weren't betrayed. Flanked by my patrols, Fū and a gaggle of shinobi staggered out from the underbrush. They were dirty and exhausted, and reeked of sweat and blood. Iwa had put them through their paces. The boy who had served me tea a month back wasn't among them.

Fū's eyes were alive though, and sharp as a razor.

"Get them settled in and give them what they need, Shikamaru."

He would keep an eye on them, or several. After our actions in Waterfall, an alliance might be the farthest from Fū's mind right now. That was the gamble we'd taken.

With a nod at the patrols, I welcomed this swarm of wasps into my camp.

"Let's take this somewhere private," I said to Fū.

"Yes," she said with a sweet look, "let's do that, Naruto."

I led her through the camp down into Orochimaru's former basement. The moment I had closed the door, her chakra became wild, willing to lash out at the slightest provocation. I matched hers with mine. The air in the room was getting charged.

Then Fū reined back her chakra until it was boiling just under the skin, pricking at my senses. Her lips stretched into a smile that was all teeth, showing off incisors sharp-edged like an animal's. "You sure did me dirty," she said. "Not in a million years I'd have expected that from you. It was a crazy move. A crazy, crazy move, Naruto."

My face told her nothing. I had learned from my mistake. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Come now, there is no need for lies, is there? We both know what happened in Waterfall."

I kept my voice hard as stone, as Danzō would have done. In a twisted way, Fū had been my teacher, and she was teaching me still, probing me, needling me, trying for reactions. I had to be cold, brutal, precise, or she would be gone, and with her all her men.

"I assure you, I don't know what you're on about."

She looked put out, then began circling me like a leopard its prey. If she dared to pounce, I'd smash her into the wall.

She said, "I suppose I did leave you with few options, didn't I? And you went where I'd never expected you to go. It's enough to make a girl feel violated. Your woman must have a lot of fun with you."

"I have things to do, Fū. You should be the same, given what I heard is going on in Waterfall right now. Frankly I'm surprised you came here. Have you had a change of mind?"

"Oh, yes," she said. "I have had a lot of thoughts about what to do with you. To stoop so low as to betray an ally and give information to an enemy nation is . . . quite something. I'm sure your men would be thrilled about knowing what their commander got up to."

"As far as I know you're the one who started a decade long war by giving away secrets to foreign powers. It honors you that you try to do the right thing now by upholding a weak semblance of resistance, but you don't seem to do too good of a job at it."

Her eyes widened. Her composure slipped. For a moment, the hurt stood so plain on her face, so visceral, that I felt like the biggest scumbag on earth. I was neck-deep in muck now, and no shower in the world would ever get this off me.

"You know . . ." she whispered.

"What I know is how to get out of this situation," I said. "I told you about my plan back in Waterfall. Have you reconsidered?"

She was struggling to get herself back under control. Her chakra lay so heavy in the air, it would have suffocated normal men. On her face, madness and fragility kept chasing one another, and I honestly couldn't tell whether she'd cry next or start a fight with me.

I pressed on. "What is it going to be, Fū? Are you here to follow?"

Violence flickered across her face. "And what if I said I'm not? Would you do the same as you did in Waterfall? Have you become the big bad now, and could stomach killing all of my people after we sought refuge in your camp? What would that do to your image? What would that do to you?"

"How many of your men will still follow you if they learn that you betrayed your own country? How many would put the knife to you themselves?" I put an edge into my tone. "If you endanger my people, Fū, I will end you, right here, right now. So I'm asking again, are you here to follow?"

She stood close enough that I expected a knife in my stomach any second now. Half a minute passed in silence, in which we stared at one another, then she wheeled around to the map.

"I'll be good, Chief. My men are yours." I wasn't fooled. The madness was there, even if she leashed it tightly. But at this point I took what I could get. "What's the plan again?" she asked, slapping her palm on the map. Her hand was trembling.

"Killing Iwa-nin."

"Oh, look at you," she burst out in a giggle. Her voice had once more taken on its sing-song quality. "I almost feel like a proud parent right now, you know? One talk between us, just a few minutes, and look how you changed! It's amazing how fast they grow up, isn't it? Just you wait. A few more years and you won't even recognize yourself anymore. Ain't that fantastic? All that weakness gone. The world's yours, Chief. It truly is."

The knife came, and it went deeper than expected. I didn't move a muscle, but damn if that hadn't hurt.

"My apologies," she said with faux-contrition. "I'll behave."

I explained the plan curtly. With her I had to keep up this spiel until we went our parted ways. If ever I showed weakness, even just a glimpse, she'd rip out my throat with her bare teeth and throw my corpse to the vultures.

Shikamaru and I agreed that we had to set out as soon as possible. Fū had left a few people in Waterfall to make trouble. They would continue spinning the narrative of an uprising to keep Iwa busy. That gave us at least some time, but I had little faith in them to hold out forever.

On a more personal note, the earlier we ended this, the better. Having to keep Fū and her men this close was the best revenge anyone could have come up with. It was like knowing that somewhere there was a fire but never being able to find it and put out the flames.

The morning after her arrival we moved toward Kumi Castle. My recon teams scouted out the areas we were passing through. One errant Iwa patrol crossed our path. Fū took care of them with a smile, bounding towards that duty with a spring in her step. I later got reports that it had been a horrific slaughter. The messenger kept staring at his toes, too embarrassed to look me in the eyes and show weakness.

I clapped his shoulder. "Chin up, man. We're on our way to victory. Stare right at it." My words did the job. The man straightened, saluted, and was gone.

Half a day into our journey, I got news from the patrols keeping their eyes on the eastern border. Rōshi had been sighted, moving out of Grass and into Waterfall. Even Shikamaru was taken aback. Without their Jinchūriki, Iwa would have no chance at all to defend the castle.

"My men are very creative, Chief. Almost as creative as you when it comes to raising hell." Fū was leering at me and Shikamaru. There was a fine sheen of murder in Shikamaru's eyes. Fū's presence proved a constant reminder of what we had tried leaving behind ever since coming back from Waterfall, worse even than Haru's white sash. As long as she was with us, she'd make sure we didn't forget.

Also, Rōshi's departure was such a tremendous help that I became wary. The only reason for too many good surprises to arrive at once was that they were running away from a giant hailstorm of trouble coming in right behind them.

In the evening, we made camp only a few hours south of Kumi Castle, in the same ruinous city where we had licked our wounds after our first loss. Tomorrow, we'd take down the last pillar of Iwa's control in Grass. I looked up the moss-covered tower, where the memories of my clones had almost ripped my mind apart. It stood crooked and shadowed in the twilight, like a bad omen. As if the last cup of instant ramen in the pantry was spoiled. I shook my head. Since moving in, Hinata had made sure that there'd always be enough stuff in the pantry. This wasn't the time to start believing in crap like bad omens.

I should've listened to my gut, not my head. When the blow came, it was a haymaker that laid me out flat.

"Say that again." A kunoichi had come from Konoha. She was somber, black slacks all around. Her bearing made her out to be from ANBU, doubling as a post-nin and a messenger. We stood outside the hall where my men were eating.

"The Godaime Hokage, Danzō-sama, is dead. It happened four days ago. Tsunade-sama did the best she could, but whatever ailed him was stronger than her healing."

I was staring at the woman like I had seen the ghost of Danzō manifest behind her. I asked her to repeat it a third time. She did. Danzō was dead. And I learned of it the night before the most important mission in this whole operation. It said a lot that not a single of my thoughts went towards sorrow.

"Have you told anyone?"

"Only you, sir."

"Keep it that way. Are you going straight back to Konoha?"

"After I deliver a few letters, sir. I'll take the mail from your headquarters on my way back. Are there any letters you want to give me in person?"

"I haven't got it on me. It's at the base," I said. "On my desk, purple twine. It goes to my wife, Uzumaki Hinata."

The messenger was waiting for me to dismiss her. I gave her a nod, and she vanished inside the hall, handing out letters.

Shikamaru joined me outside. "Perfect timing before the attack." Cigarette smoke was writhing upwards the moment he stepped across the sill. "Reading news from home will do the men some good."

"You're going to die early if you keep that pace," I said.

"Smoking won't kill me earlier than this work, that's for sure." His brow furrowed. "You look as if you've seen a ghost."

"You're on the right track." Everyone was inside to read and eat, but I couldn't chance being overheard. I pulled up a sound Genjutsu. It went more or less smoothly. The weeks of training had paid off. "Danzō is dead."

Shikamaru stared at me blankly for a while, ash towering on his cigarette stub. Then he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. I could hear him count to ten in his mind. He looked like I felt.

"This is bad news," he said. We were both observing a hare flitting across the street, into the overgrown grass straddling the buildings.

"I suppressed it for now. The messenger said she hasn't told anyone else."

"When did it happen?"

"Four days ago. Tsunade couldn't do anything else for him, it seems."

"Of all the times to—" Shikamaru's head swiveled around so fast, I was afraid it would twist out of his neck. "Four days? It takes a messenger at most two and a half to get here."

I shrugged. "Maybe she was waiting a day to make the mail load worth the trip. It's a dangerous mission."

"Have you any idea what—"

The door to the hall jarred open. I dispelled the sound illusion the moment Haru stepped out to us. His face looked more concerned than usual. From inside the hall came a murmur of voices that steadily grew louder.


"What is it, Haru?"

"Would you talk about the issue of Danzō-sama's death, sir? The men just read the news. They are getting restless."

I stared at him. Read the news? Then it struck me.

The letters: two words that kept hammering my mind as if it were a training log. The letters. The letters. The fucking letters.


I snapped out of it. Shikamaru was fingering the pack of cigarettes in his vest pocket, fishing for the next one. I would take up an unhealthy habit, too. Something I could spite Death with and shout, 'Come and get me if you dare.'

"I'll speak to them in a few," I told Haru.

He nodded and went back inside. The door closed, dimming the light and reducing the noise. I pulled up the sound illusion again. "I can't believe I didn't think about the letters," I said to Shikamaru. "On a scale of one to ten, how screwed am I?"

"I'd give it a solid eight," he said. "Morale is a fickle thing, but so far I've never heard a story where the death of a leader has raised it."

"Right before the attack . . . I knew things were going too well." I barked a laugh. "Damn this place. Damn this fucking war. I don't want to anymore, Shikamaru. I've had enough of this shit. All I want is to be home with my family."

"So does everybody else," he said. "Their best chance to make it back to them is you keeping it together. That's your responsibility."

"I didn't ask for it."

"You chose command."

"It wasn't much of a choice, was it?" I said heatedly.

Shikamaru leaned back against the building. "So you would've done any different had Danzō given you the option to say no? I find that hard to believe."

I was very nearly about to stomp my foot like a five-year old and just about held myself back. I was hot all over my body, and sweating all of a sudden. My arms were shaking. The owls seemed distant at first, and then as if they were right next to me, their hoots vibrating in my ears and stomach. I looked around, my eyes seizing on nothing and everything at once. Hold it together and take responsibility for everyone inside that hall?

I was about to laugh when my facial muscles contracted. I stopped in this frozen, open-mouthed and soundless cry, and then snapped my mouth shut like a box that held all the horrors of the world in it. Deep breaths. In, out. In, out. In, out. Align it with your heart. It was still beating, quick but slowing now. Shikamaru was saying something. I didn't understand him. In, out. Was he calling my name? Was he speaking? He was. His voice, low and soothing, was stringing sentences together. In, out. My spiraling thoughts calmed. I felt as if I was slowly being dragged out of quicksand as my facial muscles relaxed. I hadn't even noticed how tense my jaw and the rest of my body had gotten in the attempt to keep my mouth shut and that mad, frenzied laugh inside.


I gasped for air. "I . . . I don't know what that was."

"Me neither," Shikamaru said. He seemed uncomfortable for a moment, then put his hand on my shoulder. "Listen, I'll be with you every step of the way. But we have to tell them something. The truth. And also that it's going to be alright. One more victory and Grass is ours, that kind of thing. I'll be with you. Don't forget that. It'll be troublesome as hell, but we can do it. We had worse before. And you know how to give speeches. I've seen you training this with your clones."

He was right. Oddly enough, it was the embarrassment that he had seen me practicing giving speeches, the normalcy of that embarrassment, that brought me fully back into reality. I had no idea what had come over my body and mind there, but I was getting myself back under control.

"Two minutes," I said. "A quick breather, then I'll do it."

Shikamaru gave me an encouraging smile. I would have gone mad a dozen times over already if not for him, and I wondered how I'd ever be able to repay that kind of debt.

At length, I said, "Alright." I had formed the bare bones of what I wanted to say, a spark of an idea that might get me somewhere. Now it came down to execution and how well I could improvise.

Side by side, we stepped into the hall.

Logs were crackling in the two large fireplaces lining the walls. It had once been a temple, then a town hall, now a ruin we made use of. There was a cold draft; the wind kept rattling the shutters. The tables, some fixed, some broken, formed ranks in front of the fires. Shinobi and kunoichi sat on benches, hunched over bowls of barley gruel. A few nibbled on ration bars; others were done with food and kept to their canteens. There was a conversation in the air, growing loudest where shinobi had opened the letters that were now lying on the table. Everyone in reach was trying to glimpse new information, even though the letter had likely been read a dozen times already.

When I crossed the hall each step felt as if I had Lee's weights bound to my ankles. Conversation died down to a deathly quiet. The plodding of my boots, Shikamaru's softer steps, the click of his lighter, and the whistling of the wind were all the sound in the world. It was a solemn mood as we took up position in front of the tables, on a stone elevation where decades ago priests had preached, and mayors had announced.

The eyes of about two hundred people followed every one of my motions—Fū's among them. She was leaning against the wall opposite the fireplaces, watching me with an unreadable face as I let my gaze swivel across the hall.

No matter how much I wanted to get this over with, I couldn't allow myself to rush this. Jiji had been a fantastic story teller. He'd been slow and steady, raising and lowering his voice when he had to, but always having me hang on his lips for the next word. I would never be even half as good, but I had to give it my best now.

When enough time had passed, I started.

"As you know by now, Danzō-sama died four days ago. This news comes as a tragedy, but not as a surprise." I paused. "Understandably, most of you look confused by this last part. But our Godaime had already been battling with an illness, a poison to be exact, before we set out to make Grass our own."

"Naruto." Shikamaru's whisper was urgent.

"You couldn't know this," I went on, keeping my tone somber. "What I'm revealing right now was, and still is, classified as an S-rank secret. The Brass will give me no end of trouble for telling you, that's how they are, but right now I don't rightly care for what the Brass has to say. All of you have followed me up to this point. You bled for Grass, had friends, even family, die for it. You earned the right to know why we're here. Why this campaign is possible. And more importantly, who made it so."

I let them chew on these words for a moment, then continued, "This place is ours, because the Godaime gave his life to take out Orochimaru, who had dug in his heels right here in Grass." A murmur rippled through the room. Even decades after his treachery, Orochimaru's name hadn't lost any of its menace. "Most of you have seen the inside of his hideout, where he conducted his experiments. It is the same kind of torture he'd visited on us when he was still a Konoha-nin. Some have probably wondered why he isn't stopping our operations in this country, where he had managed to evade our reach for years. Well, that is the reason.

"Orochimaru was a snake, slippery and quick to escape no matter who was hunting him. Jōnin, ANBU, Jiraiya and Tsunade of the Sannin—it didn't matter, did it? For all their strength they failed to catch him. Then Danzō-sama went to Grass. He found the snake. He killed it. And he suffered the price for his courage. For the bravery necessary to take on Konoha's largest shadow. To rid us of our worst nightmare."

I knew from personal experience that every child of Konoha grew up with a fervent love for the Hokage. Time might dull that adoration. War sometimes smeared it with dirt until it was unrecognizable. But even if the Will of Fire was reduced to nothing but glowing embers and ashes, it would never go out completely. All it needed was the right wind to rekindle it, and to fan it up again into the bonfire it once was.

In the faces before me shone a sudden fire of loyalty and imagined heroism that set the hairs on my neck to stand straight. I grew louder as I went on, "Now we are here, in Grass, the very place the Godaime fought in. The very place he sacrificed his future for our future. He not only rid us of Orochimaru, but also gave us this chance to gain control of the war—to bring an end to it. Danzō-sama was the epitome of what a Hokage ought to be! And his last mission for us was to take this country: to control Grass—every damn inch of it, from the rivers down south to the mountains up north, and everything in between. And I"—I thrust my fist at the direction of Kumi Castle—"I count that castle among those inches. And I will take it down, brick by brick if I have to, if it means kicking out Iwa from the place the Godaime died for. If it means winning this war. For Konoha!"

There was no need for me to say anything else. The hall picked up the last word I had roared at them, and from every corner flung these three syllables back at me: "Ko-no-ha! Ko-no-ha!" They were stomping their feet and bashing their canteens and fists on the table. From the rafters it echoed: "Ko-no-ha! Ko-no-ha!"

Shikamaru looked as though he couldn't decide whether to be happy or worried. I had motivated them alright. I had also given up a secret that hadn't been mine to give. Eventually he shrugged, flicked away the bud of his cigarette, and raised his fist in the air with all the others who had done so. He, too, began to shout: "Ko-no-ha. Ko-no-ha."

In that swell of noise, I took special note of Fū's corner. Her men looked out of their element, and, in their dwindled numbers, uncomfortable with the sudden aggressive sounds all around them. Fū herself sketched a tiny bow and shot me an insufferable smirk. She knew, then, that even though the facts were correct, I didn't quite believe what I had said.

But right now it didn't matter how dirty I felt. My people cried out for victory in every syllable, and only a fool would not answer their call.

Amidst all the chanting, Haru, having stood in the front row with an expression of ecstatic fervor, sprang forward. In one tug he ripped the white sash from his belt and threw it onto the stage. It landed in front of my feet, and lay there outstretched like a shawl, a flag of some kind.

A flag of what, though? I had no clue what he was up to. All I saw was that Shikamaru's eyes widened to the size of dinner plates. My men's chants were thundering in my ears. Their stomping feet set the hall to shiver. Then a kunoichi in the second row followed Haru's lead. It was Miko, the Chūnin to whom just a few months ago I had explained Jiraiya's wisdom of changing the meaning of bad things when the thought of Orochimaru's hideout became too much to bear. Again, she wore her red, long-sleeved shirt under her vest. She tore off one sleeve, bundled it up, and let it sail onto the stage as well, where it fell right onto the white shawl.

Most people were still shouting Ko-no-ha, but now a new call was raised, and as it reverberated in the hall it shook me to my core.




My vision went fuzzy. I stared at the two overlapping sleeves of red and white, and trembled at what they symbolized. I looked at Shikamaru, but he was all out of help. He stood staring transfixed at the mob that was trying to make me their Hokage outside of any regular process.

What should I do? If I started to call myself the new Rokudaime, the people back in Konoha would go ape-shit. I might even be court-martialed for that kind of stuff. And what about Shino? He wouldn't take this lying down. This was still a race between us, after all. And Hinata? God, they would hardly leave her and Chie alone if I declared myself Hokage. Would I be able to explain my way out of this?

And yet, my dream . . . for the first time it was truly in reach, and that literally.

The crowd was getting louder and louder. They had found their rhythm, and their feet pounded the floor in time with each syllable. If I denied them here, all the work I had done to raise their morale would be shot. Jiji had once told me that it was easier to unleash a storm than to cage it. Now I understood what he meant better than I ever thought I would.

My heart boomed like a storm in my chest. Blood surged through my body, loud and vicious.

As if in a trance, I reached down and grabbed both sleeves in my sweaty fist, raising them above my head to a thunderous cheer. The colors of the hat, the office of Hokage . . .

It wasn't mine to take.

I took it anyway.

"I don't know what happened any better than you do," I said, treading a circle into the foundation of the chamber. The room was hazy with smoke and drenched in anxiety. "I've got no idea what happened. No damn clue. It just did, okay? It happened. Things happen. You know that."

"You took them," Shikamaru said. "You took those bands and you held them up."

I wheeled around, ready to lay into him. I stopped. He looked just as out of it as I felt. He was merely stating facts at this point. Cigarette buds piled up around his feet, and he sat on the table, smoking as though this was the last night of his life where he could.

"I didn't know what else to do. I mean, what would've happened? I say no, and then what? They're getting down in the dumps and Iwa slaughters us tomorrow?" I resumed my pacing. "I had to. That's what I'll say to the Brass if they ask. I had to. It's the truth. Things went out of control, I acted, things got better. That ought to make them see."

"I'm not sure they'll view it that way."

"Well, what else was I supposed to do?"

Shikamaru reached for the sake instead of answering. The operation would begin in six hours. "Do I call you Hokage-sama now?"

"I don't know," I said, taking a deep draft from the bottle myself. "I don't know, okay? It sounds strange. It's unofficial anyway. You think they'll call me Hokage-sama when I go out there?"

"After tonight? I wouldn't put it past them."

I stopped at the shuttered window. My hands had been nervous the whole time. Again and again they found their way to the red and white sleeves that were tied to my vest like tassels now. "I don't know what to do. What can I do? They would've been the worst kind of suckers tomorrow had I thrown those sleeves away. It's impossible. I had to."

"I guess so. It'll be a hard thing to sell the Brass, no matter how we spin it."

"Dammit, Shikamaru, what am I supposed to do?" I ran my hand through my hair. "This isn't how I wanted it to happen."

"Are you sure?"

"What do you mean?"

"Are you sure this isn't how you wanted it to happen?"

I said, "It's unofficial—"

"—which makes it troublesome, yes," Shikamaru cut in, "but it was still one hell of a coronation. I've known you long enough now to realize that this, however bad it might turn out for us, gave you goosebumps. I know I had them. I'd be very surprised if you didn't."

I glared at him, most likely because he was right. I had enjoyed it, in all its stupid glory. I would never forget how every breath had been electrified, and how their shouts of Rokudaime had echoed in that hall. And yet, did that make it alright? Did the circumstances justify what I had done this evening?

I chose to deflect. "Are you drunk?"

"No more than you," he said. "I'm just being honest." He shrugged. "Maybe it's infectious. You can't find more honesty than you did in that hall. They were roaring their honest desire in your face. I'm definitely no fan of how they went about things, but at least having you as their Hokage is a wish I can get behind, stubborn as you are."

I was touched, and more affected by his words than I let show. "It's still unofficial," I said. "It was probably a spur of the moment thing and nothing more. I bet they'll have second thoughts come morning."

"Dream on, Naruto. They chose you, however bad their timing. You've got an army of shinobi that literally shouted themselves hoarse for you to become their leader." He took another swig, then raised the bottle in salute. "Not too shabby for an orphan and former dead last, I'd say. You did good. In your strange and unpredictable ways, you did good."

I took the bottle from him. He was getting a bit too honest, and I had no idea how to deal with open acknowledgment of this kind.

"Maybe," I said, copying his second-favorite word. "But I've got to deal with the fallout for now. Do you think I should write the Brass, trying to explain before things get out of hand?"

"It's a start," he said. "They'll be mad no matter what you do, but better they hear it from you than some random messenger."

"Can you imagine the look on their faces if some Chūnin tells them that they've got a new Rokudaime they know nothing about?" I let slip a laugh before sobering up again. The liquor was getting to me, too. "That's actually not that funny if you think a bit longer about it," I said. "I'll write that in the letter, too. That I had no other choice. That it's only temporary. A morale thing. I'll give them Grass on a platter for it. And maybe even Waterfall being pacified, and Iwa driven out of there. That ought to calm them down."

"You're making an awful amount of promises."

"It's about all I can do. Otherwise they'll send ANBU to cart me away the moment they hear of this. I don't even want to know what Hinata is going to think. How's that for staying out of trouble, huh? A good job you did, keeping me safe. Hinata won't be happy with you either." He avoided my eyes, and I waved him off. "Don't sweat it. I'm not mad about that stuff anymore." I held up the red and white tassels. "As you might have noticed, right now I've got bigger problems."

"That's an understatement. Imagine the stories you can tell Chie when she's old enough."

I laughed. "And that, honey, is how they made me the illegal Rokudaime. What do you think of your old man now, eh?" My face fell. "Damn, I really can't see the humor in this for longer than a second. They'll fry me alive."

"Then we should get started on that letter."

So we did, both sitting bent over a scroll, trying to find words for the unspeakable thing that had happened, even as the upcoming attack was coming ever closer.

I was glad for Shikamaru's intellect. Even drunk, he had more grace in his writing than I at my very best. Whether the Brass would take my groveling and run with it, or send a group of Oi-nin after me, I didn't know. Later we decided not to let the men call me Rokudaime and have them get used to it. Let them see the tassels and draw motivation from that and memory. I'd have them call me sir, as always.

I had liked the sound of Rokudaime, though.

Only a fool wouldn't be dazzled by its glamor.

End of Chapter